"In the early 1990s some very imaginative game designer noticed that both the fictional Dracula story and the real-life case of Jack the Ripper took place in the 1880s and 90s, and decided to bring the two together. AT LAST! "
In the early 1990s some very imaginative game designer noticed that both the fictional Dracula story and the real-life case of Jack the Ripper took place in the 1880s and 90s, and decided to bring the two together. AT LAST!
Thus begins Master of Darkness, a gothic horror treat of a platformer for the MasterSystem. Funnily enough this title came out in the same year (1992) as Bram Stoker's Dracula, a game with which it shares numerous thematic and gameplay similarities. While Dracula was more of a challenge overall, it devolved into ludicrous unplayability by the end and was also pretty much sans plot on the way through, just dumping you into each of the locations from the film and novel in turn. Master of Darkness (which I'll call 'Darkness' from now on) has a much stronger in-game premise and plot which are developed through some atmospheric cut-scenes, and even melds its horrors into period detail.
The end of the 19th Century is approaching and London is in a state of dread. The arrival of each full moon brings with it a new and grisly unsolved murder. Psychologist Ferdinand Social (that's us) receives a message on his Ouija Board - and I might add that we see this message spelled out onscreen, which is cool - warning him that Dracula is involved, and that 'horrible events beyond human imagination' are occurring on the Thames River. Like any good psychologist, Social is compelled to investigate this case which will see him pursue killers and monsters all over London and beyond.
If I caught you thinking, 'Huh, how can I kick ass playing a psychologist?' - just remember Hannibal Lecter then try again.
Our hero probably didn't anticipate that he would be in for any leaping shenanigans or physical combat this evening, thus he wears his very stylish blue coat and pants down to the banks of the Thames at midnight. He neither walks nor runs but strides, an impression cleverly wrangled out of only 3 frames of animation. You can pull down to duck and you can also shamble along commando-style at this half height. You can jump to a set height with one button and steer yourself in mid-air (all inertia-free) while the other button stabs out with your current weapon. By default this is a short knife, but there are a decent number of alternatives to be found and differentiation is well handled. The sabre is weak but with best range, the cane is strong and long-ranged, and the axe is very strong but short-ranged. You can also collect and carry ammo for one kind of missile weapon at any time from a range of bombs, a pistol, boomerangs and silver bullets.
The main thing which immediately hooks you into this game is the atmosphere as evoked by some rich graphics depicting the London nightscape and by the perilous musical score. Lights stud the buildings in the background whilst in the foreground you can see the old brickwork, bridges and canals of the Thames and those creepy 1800s gas lanterns lining the streets. It's a very spacious game with a generous visual scale for a platformer. Stairs, ledges and spikey hazards are all well-defined and not once have I struggled to execute a pixel-perfect leap to another surface.
All of your melee weapons have a backswing and a little delay between attacks, which makes your positioning, aim and timing pregnant with significance. Another thing I really like is that all enemies, including the bosses, behave exactly like Mr. Social in fights. That is if you stab or shoot something, it flickers with invulnerability for a moment before coming at you again. Bats will perish after one stab from anything, but all of the other foes can take multiple hits depending on what you stab them with. The most common enemies are back-and forth maulers such as London thugs with pistols, wolves who wake up and then strafe you, wandering hunchbacks and skeleton warriors. Your core airborne enemies are the bats who appear in every level (and on almost every screen) of the game. Hanging unobtrusively at first, they're triggered when you approach and will then zip into a variety of patterns. Some shoot off the screen, some commence an endless orbit, and the worst kind make repeated artful passes which are very tricky to negotiate.
You will take a great number of hits throughout Darkness, especially from bats up your belfry, but the game is quite generous with life potions which restore 1/3 to 1/2 your life orbs at a time. You can find these by smashing the masonry in different locations with your weapon. Since the game tries hard to keep you alive if you're observant of the potions, death takes you back to the start of the round, and in this game I don't mind this scheme. Combined with the fact that you have unlimited continues (though continuing takes you back to the start of the whole level, not just the current round), it encourages you to practise.
The only downside is some fatal plummets: into the river, off a rooftop, into a pit etc. There's nothing stupid about these as you can always spot them clearly, but there are a few mean tricks involving enemies who'll suddenly arrive and bump you off the edge. Here's where the missile weapons can come in handy to clear the way. The pistol is the only dud weapon, being far too wimpy. But bombs arc, which is very useful, the boomerang does what you think it does, which is very useful, and the chunky silver bullets tear across the screen for high damage, which is very useful.
Now it's not often that you get fear-edged suspense out of a platform game, so it's quite an accomplishment that Darkness pulls it off. Level 2 is The House of Wax Dolls (Why hasn't someone made a sexy horror flick with THAT title yet?) and here you'll wince as you pass each wax statue, wondering if it's this one or the next one which is going to come to life and attack. Similarly there are furnished rooms where the furniture, paintings and candelabras will suddenly animate Poltergeist-style and assault you! There are lots of cool surprises like this, and I've also got to say that this game has the hottest psychologist on furniture combat I've ever seen on any console. Those marauding chairs are really hard to get a handle on. And a funny bonus is that the figure in the paintings looks like Bill Clinton.
Pick-ups are obtained from floating skulls which you stab or shoot open to reveal their contents. Once again for this genre, I'm semi-annoyed that they couldn't just put these at the hero's height in regular distribution, as even standard skulls require a jump and a timed stab on your descent to pluck them open. Also from the skulls comes the lone stupid element of this game... you can find your crappy default knife weapon anew in skulls! If you're unfortunate enough to touch it, BZZZZT it replaces whichever cool melee weapon you had. Moronic; surely the guy would never pick it up. Hmmm, unless it's reverse psychology? He is a psychologist and... no, it is stupid.
Thus endeth the lone silly feature.
Still, there are lots of cool pick-up tricks: Having the skulls hanging over progress-removing drops, behind an optional slew of traps and monsters or in a mid-air section where you'll only have one chance to grab them. You've seen these stunts before but it's exceptionally well done here, with just the right balance of challenge versus frustration.
Level design is excellent and provides a tasty variety of challenges and atmosphere. The Thames is a long scrolling area with generally only 2-3 floors onscreen at a time to ease you in. In The House of Wax Dolls you have snakey screen arrangements winding at first through the creepy museum galleries and then up and around stately rooms. Some rooms will trap you, start screaming an alert sound then drop in a salvo of rampaging wax maidens or furniture. No escape is allowed until all the waxheads are slain and all the furniture is broken (These mini-challenges are very reminiscent of Bram Stoker's Dracula's bride attack scenes.) There's also a graveyard level, plenty of underground caverns, a laboratory and finally a refreshing labyrinth. I say refreshing because it challenges you to find the lone flaw in a wrap-around maze of chambers, rather than hack your way onwards in linear fashion.
The game even has an example of what I call (usually being sarcastic) 'Everyone's Favourite.' That's when you have to tackle a long horizontal section on the lower floor, then climb upstairs and tackle it again going in the opposite direction whilst trying not to fall back down. In Darkness it's in the form of a lush cathedral with stained-glass windows and bells hanging in the dark, where bats and green banshee women dive gracefully towards you. Once again this game manages to pull off a classic scheme with just the right level of challenge, being neither easy nor too cruel.
I'll take a punt that this is the first game to feature Jack the Ripper as a boss. Now the second surprise: The little dialogues you read from each boss are genuinely engaging! Usually I expect 'Ha you die now' from 8-bit console bosses. The goodness here is a function of Darkness' strong story. Remember that the idea of the game is that Dracula is running around London leaving evil servants in his wake who are committing bloody murders. So as you track each servant down you get a bit closer to the big D himself. There's a strong feel about each encounter as some of the baddies are willing servants (like Jack) but others, like the psychic girl in the wax museum, are good folk who were possessed and thus whom you are tragically forced to kill.
Boss variety is a definite A+ here. Jack leaps around platforms trying to knife you, the psychic girl inhales and exhales magic dust which turns into a spinning skul (to understand the typo, play Black Tiger), and there's a fabulously hectic screen for Count Massen involving spikes drilling up and down from the floor, a bouncing energy bolt and platforms descending from the ceiling all at once. Hm, reminds me of The Krypton Factor. As for the big D himself... his introduction is pretty psychedelic and one of the best MasterSystem moments I've seen. Think of the end of 2001 or something.
I'm unbelievably glad that someone who could write handled all of the dialogue and cut-scenes! There is something very classic about the combination of the little square graphics, which depict everything from strangers stalking through smog-filled London to a mask falling away from Jack the Ripper's face, and the lyrical prose. The accompanying music is particularly chilly and vexing in a 7-beat time scheme and... in short, these are my favourite cut-scenes in any MasterSystem game. They sure make stuff like Ninja Gaiden look like amateur night. As for the regular sound effects, they're all very solid. Typical churny explosions and SHWIT stabbing sounds, good tinkly musical stings, chimes, alarms. They're probably equal the pinnacle for this system and they milk the entire frequency range from ye olde sound chip, which is something I'd hope for from a 1992 game.
On the replayability front, since gameplay is solid and I love the rich atmosphere and music in Darkness, I play it quite often. I'm not keen on completing it often, since taking on two bosses in a row in the finale and being sent back to the start of the level for failure is a bit much. But to complete it for the first time is rewarding. The concluding messages may surprise you with their poignancy; they have a lyrical little something to say about horror and fear in general. And the scheme whereby you can always continue from the start of a level (but not a round) should keep players of most skill levels happy.
If you're looking for an action festival, this game may be a bit too precise or measured for your tastes. Inversely, skill and practice are well-rewarded are there are virtually NO totally cheap assaults!
-- Lush turn of the century atmosphere
-- Great level variety
-- Graphics are always fine and radiant
-- Precise gameplay and skilful combat
-- Surprisingly strong story for a platformer
-- Excellent balance of generosity vs challenge
-- It's actually scary at times
-- Killer cut-scenes
-- Lush music
-- You will fight with furniture
-- Your name is Ferdinand Social and you are a psychologist!
-- It's got Dracula and Jack the Ripper!
-- It's got The House of Wax Dolls
-- Ugh, you can pick up the worst weapon again
-- Why must I jump to release every pick-up?
-- Death by fatal plummet has too many repercussions
-- Like a European horror movie, this game has alternate titles: 'Vampire' for the MasterSystem and 'In the Wake of the Vampire' for the GameGear.
Master of Darkness is a platformer of great class, operating on the highest technical and aesthetic planes of the MasterSystem near the end of its life cycle. I can't resist anything with so much supernatural and atmospheric goodness and with rampaging wax maidens.
-- Master of Darkness -- 8/10 --
Community review by bloomer (February 06, 2004)
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